After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ “
-Matthew 4:2-4 (NIV)
You just knew all those potlucks and fellowship lunches were going to come back to haunt you, didn’t you?
A new study at Northwestern University has found a link between obesity and regular church attendance.
For 18 years, the University’s Feinberg School of Medicine tracked 2,433 young adults in Chicago, Minneapolis, Birmingham, and Oakland. The study found that “frequent participants” in church services and other events were fifty percent more likely to become obese by middle age as those who participated in no religious events. (For purposes of the study, a “frequent participant” is defined as someone who attends at least one religious event per week.) Matthew Feinstein, the lead investigator in the study, said that the study had not been able to determine reasons for the correlation, but that “the upshot of these findings highlight a group that could benefit from targeted efforts at obesity prevention.”
It seems to me that the study poses more questions than it answers. I’d like to know more about the 2,433 subjects, for instance: what else might the frequent religious participants have had in common economically, culturally, educationally? There are documented predictors of obesity that tie to all of those factors, as well. More to the point, though, I wonder what, exactly, about regular church attendance might contribute toward obesity. Should we be more careful about what, and how much, we eat at those church suppers and dinners on the ground? Should churches do away with coffee and doughnut time?
Questions about the study aside, however, it does suggest at least the possibility that maybe believers don’t take seriously enough the link between physical and spiritual health. Obesity, we know, can be due to many factors, and the standards for defining obesity in the first place can change drastically. Still, it might be that the impulse of our time to sharply delineate between the sacred and secular parts of our lives has done us no favors. We simply imagine that what, or how much, we eat is a matter of indifference to our God.
Notice, though, that the Bible actually has quite a lot to say about moderation in indulging ourselves:
The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna! (Numbers 11:4-6)
Do not join those who drink too much wine
or gorge themselves on meat,
for drunkards and gluttons become poor,
and drowsiness clothes them in rags. (Proverbs 23:20-21)
...Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. (Philippians 3:18-19)
In our culture of plenty, the word “glutton” has almost lost all meaning. It implies overindulgence in food or drink, but it also implies overconcern with food, or preoccupation with eating only what we enjoy most, right when we want it. Early church leaders recognized that the sin of gluttony could show itself in guises other than overeating. Eating frequently, or craving delicacies, or even eating too eagerly could all be signs of a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with indulging the palate.
Everyone knows what the sin of Sodom was. So it’s surprising when the prophet Ezekiel, in naming the city’s transgressions, emphasizes rather that they were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” The problem, if those who go to church regularly really are more likely to be obese, is certainly not that our culture considers obesity unattractive. The primary problem isn’t even the health issues that go along with obesity, though if we think of God as our Creator then we certainly should be careful stewards of our bodies. The real problem is a theological one. To overindulge in food is, perhaps, to forget that lesson that Jesus learned so powerfully in going entirely without food for forty days: “Human beings do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
In a world in which hunger is rampant, where children still starve to death, it’s a poor witness to the gospel if the American church is overfed and overindulged. It suggests that we might be parking love, righteousness, and generosity at the dining room door. It casts us as the rich man, enjoying our luxury while Lazarus longs for our crumbs well within arm’s reach. It tells the world that our god is our stomach, our highest purpose to fill it with all the food it growls for.
An overindulged church gets so used to responding to the body’s cravings that we lose our appreciation for the grace of God. We find it hard to be truly thankful for peanut butter and jelly when what’s on our minds is steak and lobster. If Jesus refused to create bread out of stones after forty days of hunger, might it be good for all of us - whatever our waist sizes may be - to push ourselves back from the table every now and then? I wonder what we might discover about God? About ourselves? About the people God has called us to love and serve?
Jesus assumed that his followers would fast (Matthew 6:16), so maybe that’s a practice the church would do well to rediscover. To follow our Lord in sometimes telling our stomachs to wait while we spend time in prayer, or in service, or in worship is to discover who truly feeds us and fills us and gives us life. Maybe we should replace some of our fellowship lunches with “fellowship fasts,” in which we worship and pray and serve those around us - especially those who are hungry.
And maybe it’s time to be more thankful for the food we enjoy - and less particular about it. “Everything God created is good,” wrote Paul, “and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” In the end, “to eat or not to eat” is the wrong question. God, after all, created us with the need to eat and the capacity to enjoy it. The right question is, “What’s my attitude toward these blessings I’m receiving? And toward the God who gives them?”
That’s more important than your waistline, any day.